An indigenous Garo girl hold candles during a vigil in Dhaka on Aug. 8, hours before the United Nations International Day of World's Indigenous Peoples on Aug. 9. (ucanews.com photo)
Activists at a nation-wide seminar on Indigenous rights have called on Bangladeshi authorities to end discrimination towards indigenous groups and offer greater protection from abuses such as land grabbing.
The Aug. 10 forum was jointly organized by 22 civil and human rights groups and held a day after the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples.
"It's been 45 years since we gained independence, but ethnic minorities are still far from asserting their civil, political, economic, social, cultural and human rights in this country," said Sanjeeb Drong, secretary of Bangladesh Adivasi Forum.
"The rights of indigenous peoples haven't been realized because they still face discrimination and suppression from mainstream society and the state," said Drong, a Catholic and member of the indigenous Garo community.
In Bangladesh 99 percent of the country's 160 million population is ethnic Bengali. The remaining three million people belong to 45 different ethnic and indigenous groups.
Drong pointed out that discrimination and government negligence had allowed thousands of hectares of indigenous land to be lost to developers or rezoned by government.
In the Madhupur region of Tangail district about 15,000 indigenous Garo, Hajong and Kotch people are living under the threat of eviction as the government rezones national forest as reserve forest, he noted.
In June local authorities delivered an eviction notice to hundreds of Khasia people in the Moulvibazar district, while about 1,000 Santal families in the Rangpur district are struggling to retrieve their ancestral lands from a state-owned sugar mill, he said.
"Indigenous people continue to lose their lands to politically and financially stronger land grabbers. This must stop," Drong said.
Shamsul Huda, executive director of the Association for Land Reforms and Development advocacy group, believes the country's legal system paves the way for land grabbing.
"Indigenous people are poor and marginalized, so they can't get support from a legal system that is discriminatory and favors the rich and powerful over the poor. This can only end if people's mindset is changed and laws are amended so that rich and poor are treated equally," Huda said.
Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, president of Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council, which covers three hill districts, blames the undemocratic attitude of successive governments for land grabbing.
"Our political parties are not truly people-oriented and don't have enough respect for democratic and secular values, and they use religion for their gain. It breeds divisions in society, ultimately making marginalized people like indigenous peoples suffer," said Larma, a Buddhist.
Rashed Khan, Minister of Civil Aviation and Tourism and president of the Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples, said that the government is attempting to support indigenous people.
"There are laws to protect them, but they are not properly implemented. We need a stronger and united approach from all quarters," Khan said.